Drew Barrymore and Juno. That may be the first thought of a lot of people when they first think about Barrymore’s debut as a feature director, Whip It. Fortunately, Whip It is not Juno on roller skates [four-wheelers – remember them?]. The only connection between the two films is that Ellen Page gives dazzling performances in them.
Whip It is about a lot of things: families [natural and surrogate]; the exuberance of sports – and its importance, or lack of same, in our lives; independence from, but not losing the respect of one’s parents; feminism as an empowering of the individual rather than the emasculating of the other, and so on…
Bliss Cavender [Page] is a seventeen-year old girl whose mother, Brooke [Marcia Gay Harden] has her hitting the beauty pageant circuit – probably to assuage disappointments from her own pageant career. She’s a letter carrier now, and married to a guy who is smart enough to avoid confrontations with her.
Bliss, on the other hand, works at a barbecue joint that features a monstrous sandwich called The Squealer [if you can eat one in three minutes, it’s free]. At least she joined there by her best friend, Pash [Alia Shawkat], so that helps – at least until the day she sees a poster for a roller derby match and decides to check it out. The violence and passion of the sport hooks her and she decides to try out.
In a way, Whip It is a hybrid of The Sports Movie and The Coming of Age movie. As per The Sports Movie, Bliss, playing under the name Babe Ruthless [her teammates include Smashley Simpson, Bloody Holly and Maggie Mayhem], overcomes obstacles on route to becoming a member of the family that is her team [The Hurl scouts] and playing in The Big Game.
In The Coming of Age Movie, she asserts her independence by sneaking to play roller derby, fully aware that she’s underage, and falling in love with an indie rocker named Oliver [real rocker Landon Pigg] – one of which works out; one of which does not. The one that works out suffers a hitch when her parents discover what she’s done. The fallout from the other nearly flattens her mother.
The two movies meld seamlessly because of an extremely good script from Shauna Cross [inspired by her novel, Derby Girl], assured direction by Barrymore, and a warm, subtle performance by Daniel Stern as Earl Cavender. It’s Earl who bridges the worlds of derby and pageant and makes the point that all he wants is to see his daughter be happy. Everything flows into and through and from the moments when he makes his one stand for his daughter. It’s a small bit crucial role and Stern is perfect in it.
Does Bliss/Babe Ruthless lead her team to victory? In this case, it doesn’t matter. She’s built herself a second family; found something that inspires her, and both families come out ahead – if not a little bruised [either physically, or emotionally].
Page is superb and is ably supported by Kristen Wiig [Maggie Mayhem], Andrew Wilson [Razor, the Hurl Scouts’ coach], Zoe Bell [Bloody Holly], Juliette Lewis [Babe ruthless’ arch-nemesis, Iron Maven] and Eve [Rosa Sparks].
Barrymore shows that she’s got game as a filmmaker, too. She maintains the tricky balance between The Sports Movie and The Coming of Age elements of Whip It, where a lot of directors might not have pulled it off.
Also, is it just me, or does Andrew Wilson really look like the young Dennis Quaid?
Final Grade: B+